Honey bees Honey bees Honey bees are being threatened. (Photo: (Video screengrab))

What can anti-social bees teach us about autism in humans?

We're not so different, you and I. A new study draws intriguing comparisons between bees and people.

Honey bees are in crisis. We're seeing an unprecedented spike in colony loss, affecting bees' ability to perform vital human food crop pollination.

So naturally, scientists have been studying the bees' behavior to look for clues that might help us understand why they're struggling and gain tools to help them. And in doing that, they've stumbled upon something intriguing: When it comes to behavioral development, bees have more in common with humans than we thought.

According to a team of University of Illinois researchers – who published their findings recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – genes that are unique to humans with autism are similar to those of bees with anti-social behavior.

hand holding with autism braceletTouching and socializing are often difficult for people with autism. (Photo: Zahraa Saleh/Shutterstock)

The team – which includes co-leaders Gene Robinson, a New York-born entomologist and member of the National Academy of Sciences, and Hagai Shpigler, an Israeli native and Ph.D graduate of Jerusalem's Hebrew University – said it's the first official analysis that links molecular heritage between humans and bees.

"What really excites me about this study is that there appears to be this kernel of similarity between us and honey bees, a common animal inheritance that potentially drives social behavior in similar ways," said Michael Saul, a postdoctoral researcher who led the statistical analysis for the study.

The scientists already knew that some bees are indifferent or unresponsive to threats, such as intruders that might destroy their habitat. Those bees don't follow typical roles according to their lifecycle or classification in the hive (queen, nurse, worker, etc.). For example, some bees that would normally be spurred into action in the presence of queen larvae were instead unmoved.

But what was particularly surprising about this latest finding, the researchers said, was that the human gene list overlaps with the bee's gene list in more ways than expected.

"Our data are telling us that social unresponsiveness does have some common molecular characteristics in these distantly related species," Robinson said.

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